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Forgetting the Federation

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Last Wednesday the 60th anniversary of the birth of the West Indian Federation passed virtually unnoticed. What had been a great dream for many British and West Indian policymakers came into existence on January 3, 1958, with the arrival of Lord Hailes, the first Governor General of the West Indies, at the Port-of-Spain wharves.

He ushered in a most turbulent period in West Indian history as the unresolved battle over insular self-determination and regional unity was to play itself out over the next four years.

That the British Government had it in mind to grant independence to a new nation state that was to be called “The West Indies” was always on a shaky foundation given the recommendation of the 1938-39 Moyne Commission that had recommended the federal idea with great uncertainty.

Their 1939 recommendation was that federation was a laudable goal that should be pursued by His Majesty’s Government, however, the Commission was doubtful of its success because of the insularity that they had seen in the British West Indian territories that they had visited.

Between the Standing Closer Association conference that had been convened in Montego Bay, Jamaica in September 1947 and the enactment of the British Caribbean Federation Act 1956 by the British Parliament, there were many pitfalls that nearly scuttled the entire effort. Not the least of these was the task given to the Federal Capital Site Commission to determine where the capital of the Federation should have been located.

This difficult task had to be settled between Antigua; Barbados; Dominica; Grenada; Jamaica; Montserrat; St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla; St Lucia; St Vincent; and, Trinidad and Tobago. In the end, the capital was located in Trinidad.

When on May 31, 1960, the Jamaican Government announced that the electorate of Jamaica would be given a chance to determine whether or not Jamaica should proceed to its independence inside or outside of the Federation, the concept of federal independence was uncertain.

After the Lancaster House conference of March 1961 that discussed the issue of independence for The West Indies, the Jamaican Government kept its promise and held the referendum on the federation on September 19, 1961.

The result was a victory for secession from the Federation by a margin of 35,535 votes. JAMEXIT had prevailed and Eric Williams concluded that one from ten would leave zero. That put considerable pressure on Trinidad and Tobago and it too announced its departure from the Federation in January 1962. By April 1962 it was wound up and remains to this day a blip on the radar screen of hope for what life could have been like in a Federation of the West Indies.

Carifta and Caricom are perhaps the closest that the region has come to finding the holy grail of regional unity that has eluded it since 1962. It was an act of self-determination in Jamaica and the unwillingness of Trinidad and Tobago to accept the final revised offer from the Federal Government of 75 per cent financing of the Federation in exchange for 50 per cent of the seats in the Federal House of Representatives that ended the dream.

The tension between regionalism and nationalism has plagued the regional unity movement for decades. The political divisiveness within Caricom and the outward expression of that divisiveness at other international forums like the OAS and the UN is justified on nationalist grounds, while the regional conversation is treated like an inconvenient truth against a backdrop of never-ending rhetoric about the dream of political union.

It was not surprising that the 60th anniversary of the West Indian Federation passed virtually unnoticed last Wednesday. However, will the next West Indian generation have the benefit of possible political and economic union in the face of a changing global economy that is unlikely to be friendly to small nation-states still trying to carve their own niches on the world stage? We can dream.


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